Ethics on Film: Discussion of "The Battle of Algiers"

Feature Film, 1966, winner of Venice Film Festival Grand Prize and many other awards, 121 minutes

May 5, 2009

The Battle of Algiers movie poster.

Overview

This cinema classic is based on events that took place during the 1954-1962 Algerian struggle for independence from the French. The action follows a small group of rebels within the National Liberation Front (FLN) and their charismatic leader, Ali La Pointe, who use all means at their disposal to induce the French to leave their country.

The Battle of Algiers opens in 1957 with a distressed and disheveled FLN member giving into the French paratroopers' torture and disclosing the identity and whereabouts of La Pointe. The film then reverts to 1954, showcasing the mounting tensions between the Arabs and the French within Algiers.

The FLN carries out a series of attacks on police, resulting in a crackdown on the Casbah, the Arab quarter in Algiers. Check-points and a curfew were put in place. Still the attacks continue as weapons are hidden in trashcans and street carts, allowing the perpetrators to evade inspections.

"Terrorism is useful as a start," says one FLN member to La Pointe. "But then the people must act." The FLN calls a week-long general strike to mobilize the Algerian population and influence the international community during a United Nations debate on the Algerian situation.

Prompted by a bombing in the Casbah by French citizens, Algerian women disguise themselves as Europeans and cross the checkpoints into town, coolly leaving bomb-filled shopping baskets in crowded cafes.

In response, the French troops step up their patrols and torture of prisoners, only to be called to account by the French press. "Is France to remain in Algeria?" the French colonel in charge asks them in return. "If your answer is still yes, you must accept all the necessary consequences."

Historical Context

Algeria was colonized by the French in 1830. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, although Algeria was ruled as part of France, Muslim Algerians were denied many of the rights granted to Europeans. Few Muslims were allowed to vote, they faced higher taxes, and many public places were segregated.

By the 1930s Algerian nationalists and resistance movements began to form, most of which united under the FLN and began launching guerilla attacks on military and government targets in the countryside. In 1955, the so-called "freedom fighters" moved into urban centers, including Algiers, and started targeting civilians.

Not all Muslim Algerians fought for independence. Those who were hired by the French as mercenaries were called Harkis and joined the French army either for the money, out of loyalty to the French, or in retribution for a loved one killed by the FLN.

Although the French won military control of Algeria in 1959, public support for the French colonization was waning both domestically and internationally. After the events portrayed in The Battle of Algiers, the FLN and the French government under then-President Charles de Gaulle signed the Evian Accords in March of 1962, which were passed in referendum three months later, declaring an official cease-fire and calling for increased cooperation between the two countries. In July of the same year, Algeria was pronounced an independent nation.

The total death toll between 1954 and 1962 remains contentious, with the Algerian government claiming that over one million casualties were incurred, including rebels killed by French troops as well as Algerian and European civilians killed by French forces and the FLN. The official French estimate was 350,000 dead.

The war also produced roughly two million Algerian refugees, and another 900,000 Europeans fled the country in 1962.

Because the Harkis were viewed as traitors to the Algerian Republic, between 150,000 and 250,000 were reportedly slaughtered in the months after the Evian Accords were signed. Roughly 40,000 Harkis escaped to France after Algeria declared independence, but many were never integrated into the French society or economy.

On the issue of torture, two French Generals, Paul Aussaresses and Jacques Massu, admitted in 2001 to torturing prisoners of war in Algeria. An amnesty law passed in 1968 makes it impossible to incriminate French soldiers for torture that was carried out during the Algerian War. General Aussaresses, however, was put on trial after publishing a book detailing his actions in Algeria. In 2001, he was found guilty and charged a 7,500 euro fine, not for the act of torture, but for attempting to justify war crimes. It has never been confirmed whether the torture orders came from the French military or government.

Controversy

The Battle of Algiers debuted in 1966, reconstructing events that had taken place just a few years earlier. Generally regarded as a historically accurate and balanced film, Director Gillo Pontecorvo nonetheless considered his work to be politically motivated. In fact, The Battle of Algiers was based on the memoirs of Saadi Yacef, one of the leaders of the FLN, who also starred in the film as a character modeled off his real-life role in the opposition movement. The film was banned in France for five years after its release.

Yet others hailed The Battle of Algiers, not only as a work of art, but as a model for both insurgency and counterinsurgency tactics, including the use of torture.

The film has been used to train members of the Black Panthers and Argentine intelligence units. It has been speculated that Palestinian terror groups and al Qaeda may also use Pontecorvo's film as a guide.

In 2003, The Battle of Algiers was screened at the Pentagon in order to offer some insight into the challenges surrounding the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Perhaps the most important lesson of the film—and the French experience in Algeria—is that successful military tactics do not lead to lasting peace unless accompanied with a successful political strategy. The use of torture inevitably backfired on the French, reducing public support for the occupation. Although the FLN was crushed, the closing scene of the movie portrays Algerians in 1964 taking to the streets and demanding independence.

Ethical Issues and Discussion Questions

1. In the Algerian war for independence, public support for the Algerian cause grew considerably after violence broke out in major cities and terrorist attacks escalated. Some claim the FLN was "forced into armed resistance." In the movie and in real life, the freedom fighters' goal of independence was eventually achieved. Does this legitimize the use of violence for political ends?

2. Note that Algerian women were involved in the struggle for independence and played an active role in political protests and armed attacks. To you, does this represent women's empowerment or oppression within an Islamic society?

3.In the film, the French forces extract accurate and useful information from their torture victims. But quite often authorities are misled by victims who have been specially trained in interrogation techniques. Does torture work? Is it a necessary evil, or are there better means of acquiring intelligence?

4. In a Carnegie Council discussion in 2005, Mark Danner of The New Yorker explained that there are no historical examples of a "ticking timebomb" scenario in which the use of torture prevented an immenent catastrophe. Nonetheless, are there situations in which torture must be used? Should torture be legalized in certain instances, or should torturers be punished even if their tactics were in some way successful?

5. According to Michael Sheehan, former deputy commissioner of counterterrorism for the New York City Police Department, the most effective counterinsurgency strategy is one that delegitimizes the enemy and organizes public support around your cause. The French lost domestic and international support once word leaked out that their troops were torturing captured FLN fighters. Should the public support torture in times of war?

6. Though torture is illegal under international law, so is planting explosives in cafes. Does one justify the other?

7. Who should be held accountable for torture? Are those carrying out the physical violence more or less at fault than their superiors who gave the orders? What is the responsibility of legal advisers and government officials to prevent torture and punish torturers?

8. What are the conditions for long-term stable peace? How can societies prevent opposition movements from turning violent?

9. Can political art be unbiased? What is the responsibility of filmmakers to be historically accurate when basing their stories on real-life events?

Carnegie Council Resources

For Torture, Who Should We Prosecute?
William Vocke, Carnegie Council
Torture is wrong. So who is culpable? The point people? The memo writers? The overseers? No one? Everyone? (Global Ethics Corner, April 2009)

Torture, Rights, and Values: Why the Prohibition of Torture is Absolute
David Rodin, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics;
David Luban, Georgetown University Law Center
Rodin's premise is that if we have a commitment against torture, then it leads to an absolute prohibition on torture. Luban worries that our commitment is not strong enough. (Public Affairs Talk, July 2008)

Torture and Democracy
Darius Rejali, Reed College
In his exhaustive study, Rejali traces the history of torture through the ages. "It's not so much that torture never works," he says. "The point is, works better than what?" There are better alternatives. (Public Affairs Talk, March 2008)

Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed
Martin Evans, University of Portsmouth, U.K.
Nearly 50 years after its bloody and protracted war of independence, why has Algeria become a breeding ground for instability, violence, and Islamic terrorism? (Public Affairs Talk, February 2008)

The Question of Torture
Mark Bowden, author and correspondent; Mark Danner, writer and professor of foreign affairs; Darius Rejali, Reed College; Elaine Scarry, Harvard University; Aryeh Neier, Open Society Institute
This panel discussion looks at the history of the use of torture and explores the moral, legal, and security implications of its use. (Co-sponsored by the Carnegie Council, Live from the New York Public Library, and the New York Review of Books, June 2005)

The Lesser Evil: Hard Choices in a War on Terror
Michael Ignatieff, Canadian politician, author, and academic
While the battle against terrorism may sometimes require infringing international norms on the use of force, we must constantly guard against slipping from the lesser evil to the greater. (Public Affairs Program, January 2004)

On the Moral Implications of Torture and Exemplary Assassination
Paul W. Blackstock, Army intelligence and psychological warfare specialist
"In practice the use of torture and related forms of persuasion," says Blackstock, "has very real and damaging effects on the private individuals who employ such means, as well as feedback effects on the society from which they come." (Worldview Magazine, January 1970)

Outside Links

Watch the entire film on YouTube.

The Pentagon's Film Festival
Charles Paul Freund, Reason Foundation
Freund discusses the Pentagon's decision to screen The Battle of Algiers in terms of the film's relation to the current war on terror and U.S. occupation of Iraq. (Slate, August 2003)

France Forced to Confront Betrayal
Stuart Jeffries, British writer and editor
The treatment of the Harkis after the Algerian War has led some to accuse France of betrayal and crimes against humanity. (The Guardian, August 2001)

Does Torture Work?
Darius Rejali, Reed College
The Battle of Algiers portrays torture as a successfull counterinsurgency tactic. Yet, according to Rejali, torturers often lose wars by compromising allies and corrupting military and government. (Salon, June 2004)

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